Order of Malta

Our Lady of Good Help: An Icon for the Pilgrimage

Written by Catherine Stevenson, MD, STL, DM

Last fall Kate Signorelli, DMOb, the extraordinary Hospitaller of Houston, and the co-chair of the pilgrimage to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, asked me if I would make an icon for pilgrimage. I took the project back to the St. Elizabeth Icon Studio in Lafayette, Louisiana, where I have painted and studied for many years under the direction of iconographer Faye Drobnic.

Iconography is not an art of individual creative expression. Its goal is to create an experience of transcendence to draw the viewer closer to God. Focused on transmitting orthodox theology, iconographers reinterpret the classical images of our faith tradition. But this is not mere historical reproduction. As the church is living faith, iconography is a living art. There are new saints and new lived experiences to be represented. The apparition of Our Lady to Adele Brise is just such an event.

The challenge was to represent the apparition faithfully while adhering to the orthodox traditions of iconography. The creation of the icon was undertaken with prayer and discussion in the studio. A drawing was created presenting the figure standing, with hands in the orans gesture, which conveys prayer, supplication and actively engages, invites and encompasses the viewer.

Adele saw a lady clothed in dazzling white, with a yellow sash around her waist, and loose wavy golden hair falling around her shoulders. She was surrounded by radiant light, and had a crown of stars around her head. In the icon a background of 24 karat gold evokes the radiant light; gold in icons always stands for the divine. White is the most difficult color to render in an icon, easily becoming flat and dull. To convey dazzling white the technique of the crystal garment developed by master iconographer Vladislav Andrejev of the Prosopon School of Iconography was used. White is the sum of all colors, and the garment was painted layers of blue, pink, yellow and green to attempt to represent light broken up as it passes through a prism.

The two unusual elements of the icon are the blond hair and absence of a veil, but these are faithful to the recounting of the experience by Adele Brise. The crown of stars is represented by yellow gold stars placed in a halo of white gold. The stars have the traditional eights points which are associated with the Virgin Mary. They are slightly irregular as starlight is soft and amorphous.

The journey of iconography is a vocation and a spiritual path. From January to July as I painted the icon I had the astonishing experience of basking in the starlight of the Queen of Heaven. The icon was blessed by the Bishop of Green Bay, David Ricken, at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help on August 5th, the eve of the Feast of the Transfiguration.

Pictures of the stages of painting, the color palette for the crystal garment, and another version of the icon (one with a veil) can be found at stelizabethiconstudio.com.

Order of Malta, American Association, U.S.A.

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